The Significance of Hawker Culture in Singapore | Hawkers are street-sellers. They traditionally advertise their wares, usually edible, by calling out to their potential customers. They are not what most of us would associate with what’s perceived as ‘culture’. But Singapore’s hawker culture has recently been designated as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. It’s a valuable and indispensable part of Singaporean life. If Singapore is known for its rich variety of cuisine, the credit goes to the hawkers. Let’s explore this fascinating phenomenon. If you caught the recent movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, you may remember the scene where Nick Young takes his girlfriend Rachel Chu, who is visiting Singapore for the first time ever, out to lunch with friends in a lively restaurant. That ‘restaurant’ is a famous hawker centre, the Newton Centre. The colourful sights, the lively sounds and the exciting atmosphere of that scene are so appealing. One may wonder what exactly is a hawker centre and how it differs from a restaurant.
How Hawker Culture Has Evolved
Before answering the question of what a hawker centre is, we need to go back in time. The hawker culture of Singapore has been evolving for over almost two centuries. Singapore’s strategic location in south-east Asia made it a popular trading post in the 19th century. Migrants flocked there in search of livelihood, from countries such as China, India and Malaysia. The migrants brought their unique customs and culture, including their traditional food. Some migrants got into the business of cooking tasty, affordable meals for working members of their community and selling them, hot and fresh, from mobile carts. Hawkers were selling various types of cuisine on the streets of the city-state. In time, the authorities realised that regulation was necessary to ensure correct hygiene and standards for the food being prepared. With great difficulty, the hawkers were persuaded to abandon their carts and shift their businesses to stalls in hawker centres, where the authorities could easily regulate their business. A hawker centre is what many people in the western world would call a food court. There are a variety of different stalls, each one run by individual food sellers, each cooking and selling their own type of food around a common seating area. The hawker centres have made it possible for orderly Singapore to keep control of its street food and to help it to reach and maintain standards of excellence. As these hawker centres are to be found all over the city-state, it means that inexpensive, tasty, affordable food is always available, whatever the time of day.
A Cultural Melting Pot
Hawker centres offer much more than an opportunity to get an affordable, tasty meal. They also offer valuable social space. They are a place where families can go out to dinner. Relatives and friends can meet and spend time together. Even business associates can meet, eat and bond together in a positive atmosphere. There’s something even more special about the hawker centres. In a country inhabited by citizens with such a variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds, hawker centres are places where the paths of many different communities cross. While each community in Singapore maintains its distinctive identity, the hawker centres provide readymade community spaces where the paths of members of many different communities cross. Whether you’re Chinese Singaporean, Malay Singaporean or Indian Singaporean, you can learn about the cuisines of the other ethnic groups in your country and get to know your neighbours better, in a neutral atmosphere. No particular community dominates any of the hawker centres. These centres provide a common community space where all communities of the country are on an equal footing. The fact that Singapore enjoys great communal harmony is probably because of the common community space provided by the hawker centres.
High Standards and High Aspirations
As mentioned, hawker centres have made it possible to impose good standards on the meals cooked by the hawkers. Fines are rigorously imposed on any hawker who fails to live up to those standards. Many hawkers are aiming for excellence in their work. There are college courses for aspiring hawkers who aim for excellence in their work. Far from being despised, being a hawker is considered to be an honourable and creative profession. Customers should bear in mind that while hawker food may be tasty and affordable, it is ethnic cuisine of a very high standard. Hawkers today not only take pride in the high quality of their food preparations, but many will also go the extra mile to maintain the true authenticity of their cooking. If this means importing some of the ingredients to Singapore for a more authentic taste and appearance, they will certainly do it. This certainly benefits the consumer, who can enjoy high-quality cuisine at the most affordable price.
Who Benefits from Hawker Culture?
Who benefits most from hawker culture. Is it the hawkers, who, instead of being street-sellers are members of a profession with the highest standards? Is it the customers, who get great food and a wonderful community atmosphere in their society? Is it the tourists, who come to enjoy the variety of great cuisines? Ultimately, the state of Singapore is the biggest beneficiary. Hawker culture keeps order in the industry, takes care of the community and attracts tourism. It serves the state of Singapore well.